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Palm i705 revisited

Though not perfect, it's still my choice for wireless data

by Shawn Barnett

Posted May 23, 2003

One of the aspects we reviewers seldom get to consider these days when reviewing wireless products is the cost of using the service. Most often, both the device and the service are provided without cost for a limited time. That was the case with the Palm i705 I reviewed at the beginning of the year, but being that I was already a Palm VIIx user, and a Palm VII user before that, I felt I understood the program pretty well. I was in for a little surprise when I decided to become an i705 user again.

After reviewing the i705, even though I really liked it a lot, I decided to stay with the Palm VIIx I already owned, because of the i705's prohibitively high US$449 price tag. While I liked the i705's push email, that big hit to my pocketbook was just too high, especially coming only four months after my purchase of a Palm VIIx in 2001. But when the price recently reached US$199, I decided to upgrade. With the Comdex tradeshow coming up, I could use it to retrieve my email more easily than just about any other solution, and I could do it for a mere US$42 per month. Its well-distributed Cingular Mobitex network worked better than just about anything else on the market, as my VIIx had proven over and over.

I found it worked as I'd remembered, and even a little better, since several bug fixes had been applied in the intervening months since my review. It is a satisfying experience, though there are still a few bugs. Too often email notification arrives, yet the email is still on the server. So the i705 gets your attention and then instead of showing you the email, it asks if you want to sync with the server to download it. Depending on network availability and the amount of email coming in, this can take a minute or two. Other times, the email has already arrived and is ready for your perusal. The reason for this random discrepancy is unclear to me. I do wish it had been designed to download all the email at once, then notify me, instead of hitting me with its quad-beep as each email arrives.

If I've set the server to receive email every five minutes it can be maddening because the thing will beep all day. I prefer to have it retrieve email hourly; but again, if there are ten emails in that hour, I'll get ten notifications as each one comes down. Sometimes, if it notifies me of one email and I have to retrieve it-and another one is already being sent-it'll fail to retrieve the first, complaining of a server-busy error, yet it'll notify me of the next one incoming. This is by far the worst bug of all.

Those problems only surface when I'm waiting for a particular email, though. If I turn off the vibrate feature and just check for a flashing red light every so often, it's a good tool for keeping up on my email all day. It should be noted that the above problems occur only when I'm having the server gather email from my regular email accounts and send them to me. Email sent directly to my email address usually arrives just moments after it is sent.

The other wireless features are also useful, like the Starbucks locator, which still works well. Amazon's PQA required an upgrade, and now it just downloads actual Web pages instead of handheld-specific content. MovieFone, Dictionary, Britanica, and the Wall Street Journal are also oft-used PQAs.

Having used Palm VIIs for many years, I find that the antenna on the i705 is not quite as good (doesn't report as many bars in fringe areas), but it still works in the same places that the VII did.

The big caution I must give is to longtime users of Palm VII units. The install program for the i705 asks whether you are a current user so that you can more easily migrate your settings to the i705, including your email account. It takes you through all the steps on their website. The problem comes in with the very different usage model inherent in the i705. Having your regular ISP email forwarded to your device entails quite a bit more usage than a Palm VII user is accustomed to, even those using ThinAirMail. I had been tooling along happily with my VIIx at the US$9.95 level for several months since my usage had gone down.

Naturally, because I anticipated using my new i705 extensively at Comdex Fall, I chose to upgrade to the Executive Unlimited account for US$39.95 (which totals just over US$42 when Federal taxes are added). I set it up to retrieve email from three accounts, including my Pen Computing account, which gets a lot of spam. Well, because I had just been billed for the US$9.95 account the week before I purchased the i705, Palm delayed enabling my switch to unlimited status until the next billing period, a full three weeks after Comdex began. Upon returning home, my bill totaled over US$280 in additional charges.

I was furious. I felt like Palm had tricked me into upgrading my account instead of starting a new one just so I would rack up a lot of charges. After all, I bought the i705 for its push email, something the VIIx lacked, and I intended to use it. To migrate me without offering to make that migration to unlimited effective immediately seems almost malicious. A call to Palm i705 Customer Care followed, and thankfully all the charges were eliminated and my account was switched to unlimited for the duration of the month. The Customer Care representative was aptly named Angel, for to me that's exactly what he was. But Palm really should rectify this situation so other users do not have to go through the worry and fear I did. I'm sure it's turned off many a new i705 user to an otherwise useful device in their first month of use.

So I'll reiterate: anyone considering the upgrade to the i705, either from a Palm 7 or from another Palm, should choose the Unlimited plan. My girlfriend also has an i705, and in just a week of use she went through all 100K just sending a few emails a day. If you're going to invest in the i705, you need to be able to use it, because it does offer a lot of features in addition to the basic Palm OS functionality. We email appointments and addresses to each other as weekly plans change, sending them as vCard attachments. I'd be terrified to use this feature with the Basic plan. I didn't buy the i705 to be terrified to use it.

Most importantly, upgraders should abandon their old email address and sign up as new users. This way you can choose that unlimited plan and begin with it immediately. Palm really should have addressed this need instead of surprising users with large charges to their credit card-in my case right before the Holidays. Because they haven't, i705 upgraders beware. It may be possible to call Customer Care and have this change effected immediately; it's certainly worth a try if your email address is important to you. As for me, I would prefer to have a email address (as all new accounts are given), but I'm not willing to go through the trouble to cancel my plan and then reinstate it again.

Overall, despite the hair-raising event described above, I'm pretty happy with the i705. Access to email is important to me, and the i705 has already improved my communication with loved ones and colleagues around the world. I'm looking forward to the Tungsten W, with its nice high res color screen, but the expected US$549 price tag might have me waiting again until the price comes down. The move from the lovely color m515 to the monochrome i705 was not at all difficult, since my interest in carrying a PDA is still more about data than pictures, games, or multimedia, and monochrome serves that need just fine.

Not more than a week after I wrote the story above, I received a certified letter from Palm. They were notifying me that they are eliminating the Executive Unlimited Plan. Now the US$39.99 rate will be changed to the 1MB Plan. Really not something I wanted to read. Our readers weren't happy either, and several complaint emails came in.

When the Palm VII first came out, there was no Unlimited Plan, and this was the chief criticism of the wireless service. When the Unlimited Plan came out, power users were drawn to both the plan and the devices. The maximum plan available was 300K for US$44.95. My current usage, with my two personal email accounts being pushed to my i705, exceeds 350K after only ten days of receiving text only email. This could be a problem, and I'll now have to visit the website more frequently to make sure I'm keeping under the limit.

In talking with a Palm executive, I found out that the increase is because Palm's contract with Cingular was up for renewal, and Cingular decided to raise rates on all their Mobitex services, including RIM's Blackberry service. As we all know, the wireless carriers are all scrambling to figure out how to make money on services they've subsidized in the past to gain marketshare, and the Mobitex network has gotten popular enough that Cingular says it needs money to build more network to meet the demand.

Palm says they think most users won't be affected by the change, since only four percent of current customers use more than the 1MB cap. We shall have to see.

Palm says it will also offer an incentive to move subscribers to the Tungsten W, which is really the next device in the i700 line, running on GPRS. At US$549, an incentive would be good. - -SAB

-Shawn Barnett

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